Six years ago Justin and Hillary McLaughlin received an electricity bill that would change their lives.
Beyond the bill from the Highland Electricity Department was a small newsletter every customer received containing community events, news and a column from Mayor Joe Michaelis.
His column that month, and for months prior, had focused on the vacant Lory Theater, originally called the Columbia Opera House. The Highland landmark had been out of operation for roughly a year after the company that ran it decided it wasn’t earning enough revenue.
The building, transformed into a theater in 1932, was closed in 2011 and sat empty for nearly a year. Not long after, Michaelis began adding notes about the Lory Theater to electricity bills.
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Justin McLaughlin remembers coming across the note. He had moved to Highland from Edwardsville to run his satellite and home theater company.
“I said (to my wife) ‘why don’t we just ask how much it is, just out of curiosity.’ It felt like within a few days we were at city hall with a bunch of important people,” he said.
Included at the meeting were the mayor, City Manager Mark Latham, and members of the city council. Interest aside, McLaughlin said they didn’t have the more than $400,000 it would take to purchase theater. Restoring it didn’t look like a realistic option.
But the city offered to help the McLaughlins get financing for the purchase and professional help managing it.
“They said, ‘What if we could help you figure out if it’s feasible? What if we helped you figure out if you could do it and get you help and coaching, consultation and feasibility studies?” he said. “And we said OK.”
The project birthed a new program that would be called the Highland Entrepreneurship Program, a wide-ranging guide for start ups in the city that would give entrepreneurs real-world advice and guidance.
Funded by the city and a partnership with local banks, the program provides entrepreneurs with a team of mentors who have experience running successful local businesses. Those mentors assess the viability of the business concept and examine the hard realities of what the would-be business owners plans.
The mentors also gave general business advice; like developing a fiscally responsible budget, the ins and outs of financial statements, staffing needs, marketing strategies, understanding growth and sales and more.
McLaughlin said he and his wife were the programs “guinea pigs.” They were the first to complete the program.
“We were the first ones to really go through it and it took a year to come up with all of it and make it work,” he said. “It took a year to make it work where we could get the price of the building down but also get the rest of the money to invest in the building.”
McLaughlin said without the program, the couple would have never been able to purchase the Lory, much less keep it afloat six years in.
“We couldn’t have done it alone,” McLaughlin said. “I wouldn’t have any real, factual backing about how to make the numbers work and we had that because of that program.”
With the help of the program, the McLaughlins completed the purchase of the theater in Aug. 2012 and began an extensive renovation that involved replacing huge portions of the theater’s innards and gutting an entire wing of the building.
The theater reopened in December of 2012 and immediately, McLaughin said, customers flocked to see movies.
“Once people started coming we could see that our projections were accurate, but they were half of what we needed to have to stay open,” he said. “We needed the second screen or we were going to close.”
A year after reopening the couple launched a Kickstarter to fund a digital screen to the Lory to offer more variety and meet the growing demands of customers. The need was made more urgent by the halt in production of 35mm films, which all the theater’s main screen supported.
The Kickstarter raised almost $70,000. McLaughlin said it mostly came from the community. It humbles him to this day.
“The reason we have the City of Highland’s shields on the side of the building is because we feel behooved to the city and the community for all they’ve done for us,” McLaughlin said.
He said Highland gave he and his wife a job and now their responsibility is to make sure the theater keeps going, hopefully for another century.
“I have a responsibility to keep this business open,” he said. “For me, I feel a responsibility to keep it going, keep the door open and keep the lights open. I feel like the community essentially gave me a job.”
The McLaughlins now employ roughly 15 to 20 people, depending on the season. Many of those are local high school students and community members.
McLaughin said, looking back, moving to Highland roughly 10 years ago was a life-changing decision. He said he doesn’t think an independently owned theater could work in many other cities.
“There’s no way this would have worked in any other town,” he said.